A green schools ambassador shares his story

Published on: 
30 Jan 2015
Mark Swiger

Mark Swiger is the Best of Green Schools 2014 Honoree in the Ambassador category.

Mark is a teacher in Marshall County Schools, WV. Active locally, statewide and nationally, Mark was behind the movement in his county school system to work toward greener building and sustainable operations. Mark partners with the entrepreneurial program at a local university to encourage the initiation of green businesses.

Here, in his own words, Mark shares his story and what it means to him to be an ambassador for the green schools movement.

Spreading the idea that “where students learn matters” comes easily; ensuring that all students attend a “green school within this generation” is a greater challenge. We’ve come a long way in the green schools movement and very fast, but we still have a way to go.

The sustainable schools journey has been bumpy at times, but it has always been rewarding to learn about how to best green our schools. Early on, I felt completely alone, only hearing about likeminded people in the press who existed somewhere outside of West Virginia. In recent years, however, I’ve found that there are plenty of advocates and ambassadors for sustainability right here, right at home.

Keeping it simple

In my experience, a major part of successfully bringing people together has been sticking to simple messages that bridge the gaps between those promoting sustainability and those who are indifferent or working against sustainability:

  • “Healthier schools at lower cost.”
  • “Where students learn matters.” 
  • “Being more sustainable in our decisions about schools can’t be an option, it is the only option.”

These short and sweet messages make it easier to draw people to LEED principles.

This kind of messaging led to two new LEED certified buildings in my district, and influenced our school board and administrators to take sustainability into account when renovating or designing new learning spaces for our children. It’s also led to a more informed staff.

When the message remains simple and is aimed at making life better for children, it’s not difficult to reach people regardless of predetermined beliefs about sustainability. The message has to be about a better life for our kids.

From advocate to ambassador

For years, I’ve advocated for green schools, even before the formal green school movement was in place. I’ve always known that schools are the best places to change the world, and that parents will support nearly anything that their children are learning at school. The transformative challenge for me as a teacher was to go from changing one life at a time or one class at a time, to guiding large numbers of people to making positive change in their communities.

The events that really transformed my life as a green school advocate were the work that I did to collaborate with my peers in other states, reaching across state lines to establish the Green Schools for Teachers Wiki, Green School Kits and to make the movement move even faster. Helping to form the USGBC West Virginia Chapter and becoming the “official” advocate was another big step in my journey.

As my involvement became more formalized and the movement started to grow with the foundation of the Center for Green Schools at USGBC, I connected with thought leaders to form and sustain Create West Virginia as a vehicle to transform our state.

I then went on to work with many strong teammates and leaders to form the West Virginia Sustainable Schools Program as a way of encouraging more schools to work toward sustainability. Over the years I’ve helped to organize dozens of Green Apple Day Service events in my district and around the state.

In recent years I worked with colleagues to establish Sustainable Learning Systems, our own knowledge-based partnership for sustainable schools, and have advocated for schools and districts applying to become U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools. Most recently, I collaborated with the Green and Healthy Schools Academy in Pittsburgh, establishing a regional sustainability focus with our neighbors.

Inspiring others: The real role of an ambassador

Whether you volunteer in your community on a Green Apple Day of Service event, provide technical assistance to a school that is applying for a National Green Ribbon Award, pitch in on a school project on Earth Day, or simply serve as an example of how to live more sustainably for our young people, you too can be an advocate and hopefully an ambassador for green schools.

There is so much to do, and by supporting each other we can assure that all students attend a green school within this generation. The fact that you’re reading this makes you a prime candidate to become an ambassador: you care.